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Friday, March 07, 2008

Annals of Russian Pseudo-Journalism

The Moscow Times reports on the sorry state of "journalism" in Russia:

When Vladimir Putin became president, NTV television was renowned for in-depth political analysis and hard-hitting coverage of breaking news stories such as the then-unfolding war in Chechnya. Now, as Putin prepares to step down, NTV's standard fare might be best encapsulated in a recent teaser ad for "Profession: Reporter," the channel's prime-time investigative program. "Why play with dolls if you can have a living toy?" asked the teaser for an investigation into the lives of 6-year-old mothers. "Who provoked a children's sexual revolution in Russia?"

The metamorphosis in NTV's coverage is characteristic of what has happened to television channels and newspapers across the country over the past eight years. Once bristling with criticism of the government and one another, media outlets these days rarely delve beyond the Kremlin line. The authorities, meanwhile, have expanded their arsenal of measures to silence critical journalists to include detaining them as they travel to opposition events, expelling them as national security risks and even accusing them of using pirated software. "An overwhelming number of journalists have accepted the rules of the game to keep their jobs," said Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists. "They understand perfectly well what they need to do. Through the examples of NTV and other media outlets, they have seen what happens to those who don't take the hint."

NTV fell under state control after airing critical reports about the second war in Chechnya, undermining public support for efforts by then-acting President Putin to stamp out the insurgency there. After Putin won the 2000 presidential election, prosecutors charged NTV owner Vladimir Gusinsky with fraud, and he was briefly jailed. State energy giant Gazprom then began a bitter struggle to seize NTV over an outstanding debt, finally succeeding in early 2001 and prompting many reporters to resign. NTV's coverage of Chechnya was severely restricted, and Gusinsky fled the country. As the NTV affair unfolded, the Kremlin set its sights on another television channel, ORT, and its de facto owner, Boris Berezovsky. The channel, now known as Channel One, had a brash anchor named Sergei Dorenko who sharply criticized the crackdown on NTV. Dorenko lost his show after he aired an emotionally charged report about the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000. "That report came out on Sept. 2, and the next program, on Sept. 9, didn't go on the air," Dorenko said in a recent interview.

Officially, the program was put on hiatus for the fall and winter, but it never went back on the air. "Spring and summer just wouldn't come," Dorenko said. Dorenko accused the Kremlin of censorship. Putin summoned him five times from September 1999, when he was prime minister, until the cancellation of his program, and urged him to be a "member of the team," Dorenko said at a news conference on Sept. 11, 2000. Dorenko said he had refused each time. ORT general director Konstantin Ernst denied Kremlin censorship and said Dorenko was being punished for disobeying orders to stop speculating that the Kremlin planned to oust Berezovsky from ORT. The state, which owned 51 percent of ORT, reasserted control over the channel five months later when Berezovsky sold his 49 percent stake to businessman Roman Abramovich, who in turn passed it to the Kremlin. Berezovsky has accused the Kremlin of forcing him out. A reshuffle also took place at the third major channel, state-owned RTR, which received a new director, Oleg Dobrodeyev, in January 2000. Dobrodeyev, an NTV veteran, tried to resign when Gazprom took over NTV, but Putin asked him to stay, and he agreed. RTR is now called Rossia.

The Kremlin quickly asserted a tight grip over Rossia, Channel One and NTV, as manifested in their lavish and praise-filled coverage of Putin's meetings with his ministers and international leaders. A top media freedom activist, Oleg Panfilov, said television news reports began to resemble Soviet-era propaganda in 2005, and stations have increasing embraced the practice, peaking during election campaigns and tense international debates, such as the Kremlin's fierce opposition to Kosovo's independence. "Have you seen anyone offering a view that differed from the official position over Kosovo?" said Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. He said the television channels have failed to give opposition politicians any "significant" airtime to provide alternative viewpoints during election campaigns and allow voters to make a "conscious" choice. NTV spokeswoman Maria Bezborodova said her channel would not comment on its editorial policy for this article. Channel One and Rossia officials asked that questions be submitted in writing in mid-February. No responses had been received by Tuesday.

The Kremlin's Stance

As testimony to the existence of free media, the government has pointed to the television coverage of the January 2005 protests over the monetization of Soviet-era benefits, which threatened to topple the Cabinet. A senior official at the Federal Press and Mass Media Agency conceded that there are problems with media freedom but insisted that the media is free. "To say that there's no free speech is a lie about our media, society, country and the government," said the official, Gennady Kudy. One problem is that many media outlets remain under the control of various levels of government, he said. But the number of independent regional newspapers is growing and has reached at least five in every region, he said.

Putin has put the burden on the media, saying journalists have to fight for freedom in any country. "A decent girl must resist, while a true man must keep insisting," Putin said, describing relations between the media and the government at an annual news conference in December 2004. "In that sense, we are not better or worse than other countries." But the problem in Russia, Putin said, is that the media do not make enough money to hold their ground against government pressure. "In my view, we have to make sure that mass media have an economic base for their independence," he said. Putin made similar comments during a speech to an international newspaper conference in Moscow in June 2006.

The president has also shown contempt toward journalists. In his first public statement about the murder of reporter Anna Politkovskaya, he brushed off her investigations into brutalities in Chechnya as nonevents. "She had minimal influence on political life in Russia," Putin said in October 2006 after a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dresden, Germany. Perhaps coincidentally, on Sept. 9, 2000 -- the same day that Dorenko's show went off the air -- Putin signed the Information Security Doctrine outlining the government's new media policy. The lengthy document prohibits censorship and the monopolization of media by the state and calls for media freedom to be promoted. But it also seems to contradict these aims by invoking shadowy foreign and domestic enemies that must be fought through strict state control over the production and distribution of information. The Kremlin set up a satellite television channel in 2005 in an attempt to shape foreign perceptions of the country. The channel, Russia Today, offers reports in English and Arabic.

Pointing to media rollbacks under Putin, Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, has called him "Predator of Press Freedoms" and lumped him together with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Libya's Muammar Gadhafi. It ranked Russia between Yemen and Tunisia in its most recent media freedom list, saying its evaluation had been determined by Politkovskaya's murder and a glaring lack of media diversity, especially in television. The group has ranked Russia near the bottom of its list for years.

The Fate of Newspapers

Although television wields more influence because it is the source of information for an estimated 70 percent of Russians, newspapers have also changed under Putin. Most national newspapers belong to businessmen who are on good terms with the Kremlin, while the regional press is under the control of local authorities with just a few exceptions, said Yakovenko, head of the Russian Union of Journalists. Few newspapers investigate Kremlin-sensitive issues like corruption, the difficulties of rebuilding Chechnya and relations with Belarus.

The tightening of screws started with the Segodnya newspaper and Itogi magazine, which went to Gazprom with the rest of Gusinsky's media empire. Gazprom shut down Segodnya immediately, pointing out that it was loss-making. Most newspapers, however, were also loss-making at the time. Itogi, meanwhile, reinvented itself with a new staff, becoming friendlier to the Kremlin but losing Newsweek as its partner.

The liberal weekly Obshchaya Gazeta died quietly a year later: Its founder and editor, Yegor Yakovlev, sold it to a St. Petersburg businessman who turned around and closed the paper. Then came Noviye Izvestia and Izvestia, which changed hands and style, shifting to more entertaining and pro-Kremlin coverage. National Media Group, a holding controlled by Yury Kovalchuk, a businessman considered to be close to Putin, is now planning to buy Izvestia from Gazprom. Izvestia was sold to Gazprom after it published a harrowing front-page photo of the victims of the Beslan school attack in September 2004. Its editor, Raf Shakirov, was promptly fired after the publication. Komsomolskaya Pravda, the country's most-read daily tabloid, was in December bought by Oleg Rudnov, who with Kovlachuk owns Bank Rossiya. Kovalchuk also controls Ren-TV, the only national channel in private hands. It occasionally shows interviews with opposition figures such as Eduard Limonov and Boris Nemtsov, but its share of viewers -- and political influence -- is dwarfed by that of the state-controlled channels.

Only three national newspapers are considered independent, Novaya Gazeta, Kommersant and Vedomosti, which is owned by the parent company of The Moscow Times, Independent Media Sanoma Magazines. But their circulation is negligible compared with the Kremlin-friendly news flow. "The authorities can afford to pay no attention to them," Yakovenko said. "They are a ghetto for the lovers of pluralism."

Journalists Under Fire

Despite the minimal impact that investigative reports have on the authorities, reporters remain the targets of attacks and apparent contract killings, as illustrated by Politkovskaya's death. More recently, Kommersant reporter Ivan Safronov mysteriously fell to his death from the fifth floor of his apartment building in March 2007. Paul Klebnikov, a U.S. journalist of Russian descent, was shot on a Moscow street in July 2004.

Of those who died, it is unclear, how many were targeted over their reporting, with various organizations compiling sometimes conflicting information. The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, for instance, does not list Klebnikov as a reporter killed for his work, saying only that the investigation into his death -- which concluded that a Chechen separatist had ordered the killing over a 2004 book -- left doubts. The center said the same about Safronov.

What is clear is that authorities have resorted to a wider choice of tools to silence the media. One of the latest trends ostensibly has nothing to do with free speech but is about copyright protection.

Novaya Gazeta's office in Samara had to close last year after police seized all its computers over accusations that they ran on pirated software. The local edition's editor, Sergei Kurt-Adzhiyev, insisted the software was legal and linked the police raid to the edition's critical stories about the local authorities, United Russia and an opposition Dissenters' March. Kurt-Adzhiyev's daughter was an organizer of the march, one of several countrywide protests that are a brainchild of former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. It took place on the same day that Russia and the European Union held a summit near Samara. "I've been taken to court for libel about 20 times, but this is not in fashion any longer," Kurt-Adzhiyev said by telephone from Samara. "It's not possible to stop a newspaper with a libel investigation. So where do they hit? A newspaper can't exist without computers."

About 90 percent of the computers used by Russian newspapers run pirated software, but the police do not visit newspapers that are loyal to the government, Yakovenko said. "They are using a new type of censorship that never existed before," he said. Kudy, the official from the Federal Press and Mass Media Agency, warned against classifying the piracy software investigations as an attack on media freedom. He said a court must rule on each case before any conclusions are drawn. The police, who have long detained reporters covering anti-government rallies, appear to have employed a new, preventive tactic under Putin. They detain reporters boarding planes and trains to cover protests and release them only after it is too late to arrive at the event on time.

In another change under Putin, unwritten rules for regional newspapers now come down from the federal authorities, not local officials, Yakovenko said. "There used to be an enormous difference among the regions," he said. "Now certain rules are set for the country as a whole." Sometimes, the authorities use state security as a reason to prevent journalists from doing their jobs. Most recently, a foreign reporter for The New Times, a weekly magazine published in Moscow, was denied entry to Russia and sent home to Moldova on security grounds. The decision to expel Natalya Morar came shortly after New Times published her latest investigative report looking into purported money-laundering schemes used by Russian officials. Also, the State Duma has reclassified the libel of public officials as extremism, toughening the penalty for a conviction. The government is using the law in an attempt to punish a reporter in Perm for calling Putin "our good Hitler" in the headline of a story published in December. Other than the Perm case, the only effect the law has had on journalists is to force them to practice self-censorship when writing about the government, said Boris Timoshenko, a researcher at the Glasnost Defense Foundation.

Notably, under Putin Russia saw its first cases of journalists being granted political asylum in another country. Last month, Ukraine offered asylum to Alexander Kosvintsev after he said he had been harassed for reports in his hometown of Kemerovo. Fatima Tlisova, an editor at the North Caucasus bureau of the Regnum news agency, and Yury Bagrov, a Radio Liberty correspondent in the region, received political asylum in the United States last year after complaining of pressure from the authorities. Both were also stringers for The Associated Press.

Challenges Ahead

While advertising is soaring for television, revenues are much lower for newspapers, and many are struggling to get by. Putin's call for economically self-reliant media is commendable, Yakovenko said, but the government appears to have made every effort to achieve the opposite. The dominance of state-controlled media has undermined the economic viability of independent news organizations by attracting the lion's share of advertising budgets from businesses, he said. In another inequality, he noted, the government handed 2.6 billion rubles ($108 million) last year to its official Rossiiskaya Gazeta to expand its circulation. "No other publisher has a budget like this. How can you compete under these conditions?" Yakovenko said.

Kudy, the government media official, said the additional copies of Rossiiskaya Gazeta were sent free of charge to disadvantaged groups such as disabled people and World War II veterans and were meant to raise the quality of the news they get. "There's no end to all kinds of printed rubbish, but there is a lack of quality press that has a balanced coverage of the events in the country and its regions," he said. Panfilov said some newspapers have brought trouble on themselves, with owners who use them as political weapons. "Such a press doesn't have a future," he said. "These journalists are trying to make up for the lack of active politicians. This is bad for journalism as a profession."

On the bright side, he said, some local newspapers have become major independent voices in their regions. He mentioned Altapress, a Siberian media group in Barnaul, as the best example. "They have learned to resist," he said. "They have begun to learn the rules. They pay taxes and don't do politics." Another improvement in the media, Dorenko said, is that they no longer serve as weapons in the hands of warring businessmen. But with the loss of their belligerence, they also lost diversity, he said. "The press has turned into ... a kind of a Kremlin press service," he said. "When I was news editor at ORT, my only problem was that the news was reported at 6 p.m. because Gusinsky reported his news at 7 p.m."

Berezovsky and Gusinsky had no chance of hushing up any news because they headed business clans with conflicting interests and would not coordinate their coverage, Dorenko said. "Luckily, there are no wars like that now, but there is no news either," he said. "The disease was eradicated with the body." Together with many reporters from NTV, Dorenko ended up as a host at Ekho Moskvy, a radio station that Gazprom swallowed up with the rest of Gusinsky's media empire but has managed to maintain its editorial independence.

Dorenko said his main source of news now is the Internet, which remains largely untouched by the authorities. "I have an enormous variety of sources, and that is fabulous," he said

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